Western members of the UN Security Council have condemned Belarus’s actions in the escalating migrant crisis on its border with Poland.
They accused Belarus of using the migrants to destabilise the European Union’s eastern border in a strongly worded statement.
Belarus’s key ally, Russia, has denied the accusations.
Belarus’ authoritarian leader had previously threatened to cut off gas supplies to Europe if new sanctions were imposed.
Thousands of people, mostly from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, have been camping near Poland’s border, braving freezing temperatures in the hope of entering the EU. There are mostly young men among the migrants, but there are also women and children.
Earlier this week, dramatic footage showed desperate crowds attempting to break through a barbed wire fence to enter Poland, only to be pushed back by Polish border guards and the army. Some migrants, however, have managed to sneak through.
In recent months, at least seven people have died on the Polish side of the border, many from hypothermia.
Western member states issued a joint statement at Thursday’s emergency UN Security Council meeting, accusing Belarus of putting migrants’ lives in danger “for political reasons.”
They also claimed Belarus was attempting to divert “attention away from its own growing human rights violations.”
The statement was issued by France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, all of which have veto power on the UN Security Council. Albania, Estonia, and the Republic of Ireland joined them.
Russia, a permanent Council member with a veto, rejected the accusations and blamed Poland and neighbouring Lithuania for mistreating migrants.
“There are many cases where Polish and Lithuanian border guards beat migrants and pushed them back into Belarusian territory,” said Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s deputy ambassador to the UN.
“I would say that this is a total travesty of any possible international conventions and rules.”
Belarus ‘gas ultimatum’
Earlier on Thursday, Belarus’ authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, said his country “must respond” if the EU imposed new sanctions against the Minsk government, which the EU accuses of undermining the bloc’s security.
“We’re heating Europe, and they’re threatening us,” he said, referring to a Russian gas pipeline that runs through Belarus and into the European Union.
“What if we cut off natural gas supplies? As a result, I would advise Poland’s, Lithuania’s, and other deafeningly deafeningly deafeningly deafeningly deafeningly deafeningly de”
His remarks stoked new fears amid Europe’s worsening natural gas shortages and rising prices.
The EU’s economy commissioner, Paolo Gentiloni, stated that the bloc’s 27 members “should not be intimidated.” Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the exiled Belarusian opposition leader, accused the president of “bluffing” on his gas ultimatum.
Mr. Lukashenko’s threat, however, should be taken seriously, according to Katja Yafimava of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.
“If the EU puts too much pressure on Belarus, it may act on this threat,” Dr Yafimava said, adding that this could raise gas prices across Europe, including in the UK.
More EU sanctions may be imposed as soon as Monday. Stopping international airlines carrying migrants from landing at the airport in Belarus’s capital, Minsk, is one possible measure.
Turkish Airlines, Turkey’s national carrier, has announced that it will restrict the sale of tickets on certain routes to citizens of Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
Iraq has stated that it will organise repatriation flights from Belarus for Iraqi nationals.
The EU is also reportedly considering sanctioning Russia’s state airline Aeroflot for allegedly transporting migrants to Belarus, which Aeroflot denies.
Belarusian national carrier Belavia was in May banned from EU skies after a Ryanair flight was forced to divert to Minsk and a dissident journalist arrested.
The EU has accused Belarus of mounting a “hybrid attack” on its territory by encouraging thousands of people to cross into Poland.
According to the report, the country’s leadership enticed them with the false promise of easy entry into the EU as part of a “inhuman, gangster-style approach.”
Mr. Lukashenko, who was declared the winner of last year’s sham election, has repeatedly denied that Belarus is sending migrants across the border in retaliation for existing EU sanctions.
Meanwhile, stranded migrants in Poland threw stones and attempted to break through a razor wire fence.
Poland has been accused of pushing people back across the border into Belarus, in violation of international asylum rules.
“There’s no way out,” Shwan Kurd, 33, told the BBC after arriving in Belarus at the beginning of November.
“Poland is refusing to let us in. We’re starving. There is no water or food available here. There are small children, elderly men and women, and “He stated.